July 22: The Indian government has succeeded in establishing contact with the little-known Iraqi militant group that has taken three Indians hostage.
Sources told The Telegraph that an Iraqi, employed in the Indian embassy in Baghdad for some 10 years, has got in touch with the Holders of the Black Banner, which has taken captive three Indians, three Kenyans and one Egyptian working as truck drivers.
Based on these negotiations, talks are being held between Indian embassy officials in Kuwait and Kuwait & Gulf Link Transport Company which had hired the seven.
Although it is not clear what exactly is being negotiated with the Kuwait company, the militant group has said it wants all foreigners working for the US-led coalition forces in Iraq to leave the country.
At the least, this would imply a commitment from the Kuwait company to cease operations in Iraq. The abductors have threatened to behead one hostage every three days unless the Kuwaiti firm pulls out.
“We are being held here against our will because they feel we are supporting America,” Tilak Raj, one of the three Indians abducted yesterday, said on the videotape filmed by their masked abductors. “They have also taken away our vehicles,” added the grey-haired man in a light brown shirt.
“We are being given food and water,” Tilak Raj, who is from Himachal Pradesh, said.
Yesterday, six hostages were seen standing behind three masked gunmen, though seven names were on the list held up by one of the abducted men.
Antaryami, also from Himachal, and Sukhdev Singh, from Punjab, are the two other Indians.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “The government is in touch with all concerned and is making all efforts for the safe return of the Indian nationals.”
But statements coming from Islamabad, though made with good intent, are unlikely to be taken kindly by the Black Banner group, officials said.
In the Pakistan capital for a Saarc conference, external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh said he had sought his Iraqi counterpart Hoshiyar Zebari’s help in getting the Indians freed.
“These people had nothing to do with combat or military operations,” Singh said. “This is a humanitarian problem.”
The Indian foreign minister also made an appeal on Al Jazeera, which has wide reach in the Gulf, saying Indians are “not combatants” but “innocent people of a friendly country” and had nothing to do with military operations in Iraq.
He also ruled out any drastic change in Delhi’s policy, saying that the question of sending troops to Iraq does not arise.
Reports coming out of Islamabad quoted Indian officials as saying Delhi is also in touch with the US embassy in Baghdad.
Both the request for help from Zebari, seen by Iraqi insurgents as part of a “puppet” regime, and the public admission of being in touch with the Americans will be interpreted as unfriendly acts by Black Banner. That would make the task of getting the hostages home more difficult.
Lined up with six other fellow hostages in a dark room, Egyptian Mohammed Ali Sanad, speaking at the start of the tape, said: “We want to go home. It was wrong to come to Kuwait and wrong to help the Americans.... I swear it’s wrong.”